Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lutzato (The Ramchal), quotes from the Talmud that the first step in coming close to G-d is through attentiveness to one’s deeds – are they desirable or not so? The Ramchal writes that it is essential that a person examine his actions in order to avoid the pitfalls which could result from them. He compares a person who goes through life without checking himself to a blind man walking at the edge of a river, who is in grave danger of drowning.
This idea is brought out in this week’s parsha. After leaving Egypt the Jews wandered for 40 years in the wilderness. At the end of that period they began conquering the Transjordan with Moshe still at the helm. Asking only to pass peacefully through the land of Sichon, King of the Emorites, his answer to them was war. Sichon was defeated, and his land became the Jews’. Indeed, Sichon himself conquered that land and usurped it from the nation of Moav. The Torah states that when Sichon conquered Chesbon: “The minstrels (Heb.- Moshlim) therefore said: come to Cheshbon! Let Sichon’s city be built and established.”
The Talmud explains this on a deeper level. The word Moshlim has at its root the meaning “to rule.” We should understand out of context that Moshlim means “those who rule over their inclinations”, rather than “minstrels”. The rulers (over themselves) say “come to Chesbon.” Cheshbon comes from the word “think.” “Come think,” states the Talmud. Consider the reckoning of the world. Consider the loss (incurred by the fulfillment) of a commandment, as opposed to its gain, and the gain from (committing) a transgression as opposed to the loss it incurs.
The Ramchal writes that in his day (17th century) noblemen would make mazes in their pleasure gardens. People would try to make their way through until the end of the maze. Some paths would lead to the goal, and some would only distance a person from the it. Some people would succeed. Those who didn’t succeed were wise to listen to the advice of those who already had. They were the ones who could see all of the paths and teach the rest who were still making their way through. This is an analogy to life. We go through life faced with many paths. Life’s advisors are those who have mastered controlling their desires, and are not governed by them. They are objective. They see the all of the paths, and they can advise us how to come through life’s mazes.
The Talmud states that this world is compared to the night. The Ramchal explains that at night there are two possibilities; either one will not be able to see at all, or he will mistake one thing for another. In our world of darkness we face the same concerns. Either we completely miss the pitfalls and we fall right in, or we embrace the pitfalls believing they are the correct things to do. Of course the latter is worse. The only approach is “come to Chesbon!” Come and make the reckoning of the world. Seek the council of the sages, and understand what is truly correct. Then we can examine our deeds and decide which ones align with our understandings of right and wrong. What brings us to becoming such people? It’s the study of Torah. This is how Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair put it. “Torah brings one to examine his actions. May we all merit to achieve this lofty goal.